Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad beat Al Ahly 1-0 in the FIFA Club World Championship curtain raiser on Sunday, ending the Egyptians’ remarkable 55-match unbeaten run.
Captain Mohammed Noor pounced on a loose ball after an error by Ahly ‘keeper Essam El Hadary and fired home from point-blank range in the 78th minute, on a bitterly cold Tokyo night.
“We are very proud to take this victory after the problems we had,” Ittihad coach Anghel Iordanescu said, referring to FIFA ruling Brazilians Pedrinho, Lima and Marcao ineligible to play in the competition.
Iordanescu’s selection headaches were compounded by having two players suspended, including on-loan Middlesbrough striker Joseph-Desire Job.
In front of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, guest of honor Princess Takamado, but a half-empty National Stadium, African champion Ahly looked likely to extend its unbeaten run that stretched back to July 2004 after dominating the first half.
Ittihad, though, gained control of the game after the break, with ex-Inter Milan forward Mohammed Kallon causing problems for the Egyptians’ defense.
The breakthrough came on 78 minutes when El Hadary fluffed his attempted punch of a cross from the right, and the ball fell kindly for Noor, who had the simplest of finishes.
“We didn’t play very well in the first half — we were scared a little too much about our opponents — maybe we gave them too much respect and didn’t try to play our game,” Iordanescu said.
“We deserved to win, but to be fair if they had scored in the first half, which they deserved to do, maybe the result would have been different.
“But the real reason why we didn’t play well in the first half is we didn’t have the power to pass the psychological problem of the last few days.
“After FIFA told us of the problem with the three Brazilian players, my players were very down mentally, not ready for the game, and the biggest problem was getting my players to recover so they could be ready for the game.”
South American champion Sao Paulo and Liverpool received byes to the last four of the competition.
Blatter played down suggestions, however, that FIFA was hoping for a Sao Paulo-Liverpool final in Yokohama on Dec. 18 in order to sustain fan interest in the competition.
“Football is unpredictable,” he said. “If there are any surprises, I will be the first one to be happy.”
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